Having recently finished Plato’s Apology, questions regarding an unexamined life have been rising to the surface. For those of you do not know, the Apology is Plato’s record of Socrates’ trial. It is written in the form of a dialogue with Socrates and Meletus, one of his accusers, as the main characters. Near the end of Socrates’ second speech he makes the statement:

“For if I tell you that to do as you say would be a disobedience to the God, and therefore that I cannot hold my tongue, you will not believe that I am serious; and if I say again that daily to discourse about virtue, and of those other things about which you hear me examining myself and others, is the greatest good of man, and that the unexamined life if not worth living, you are still less likely to believe me.1

I began to ask myself, “Am I living the examined life?”
Does it even apply to me? If so, how can I do it? How can I marry the demands of daily life with the rigors of self-examination? What comes after examination? Is it possible to over analyze and miss life in the process?

I do not have the answers, thankfully, but as I re-read the Apology, a few things came through differently. Socrates does not give exact answers to these questions, but he helps us better grasp his definition of an examined life. And from this, we can build answers to my questions. Considering the possibility of death for his crimes, Socrates says, “There you are mistaken: a man who is good for anything ought not to calculate the chance of living or dying; he ought only to consider whether in doing anything is doing right or wrong–acting the part of a good man or of a bad.2” So we can conclude, based on Socrates’ definition, the unexamined life does not regard the value of actions. Secondly, considering silence as his punishment, Socrates boldly concludes that he will obey God rather than man, because “this is the command of God; and I believe that no greater good has ever happened in the state than my service to the God. For I do nothing but go about persuading you all, old and young alike, not to take thought for your persons or your properties, but first and chiefly to care about the greatest improvement of the soul. I tell you virtue is not given by money…3” Here we see that Socrates considers virtue the greatest improvement of the soul. Finally, after being sentenced to death Socrates responds saying, “The difficulty, my friends, is not to avoid death, but to avoid unrighteousness; for that runs faster than death.4

Socrates (or rather Plato through the mouth of Socrates) has given us a few leads into the definition of an examined life. It is a life lived with regard to the value of one’s actions, with resolve to do what is right, regardless of consequences, and with perseverance in the race of righteousness. This may not seem too difficult at first glance, but these terms and concepts are often intangible to the average individual. We hold vague notions about them, but rarely examine those concepts to determine their accuracy. Secondly, we need to determine if Socrates’ definition is correct. What are your definitions of righteousness, goodness, and truth? Are they accurate? How can we know? These are some of the questions I hope to be able to work through in this blog. I am not arrogant enough to think I can give a sweeping definition of these ideas in a small amount of time, but even the longest of journeys begin with a single step. The answers are attainable, and with the proper attitude and determination we can find them.

  1. Plato. Apology, in Five great dialogues, ed. Louise Loomis, trans. B. Jowett (New York: Walter J. Black, 1942), 56.
  2. ibid., 46.
  3. ibid., 48.
  4. ibid., 57-58.
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